Hearns, Thomas

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HEARNS, Thomas

(b. 18 October 1958 in Memphis, Tennessee), one of boxing's most versatile and fearless fighters and the only man to win world championship belts in six different weight divisions.

Young Hearns lived with his mother's father, Henry Tallie, on a farm near Grand Junction, Tennessee, until he was four years old. He grew tall and taciturn, like his grandfather, whom he would often visit and work with in the fields. In 1963 John Hearns, Hearns's father, took the family to Detroit. Three years later, John Hearns left home. Hearns's mother, Lois, worked in a bank by day and as a hairdresser in her home by night to make ends meet. The family lived in a small apartment in a poor section of the city.

When he was sixteen, Hearns wandered into the Kronk Recreation Center, where a boxing trainer named Emanuel Steward was trying to groom young talent. John Hearns, who kept in touch with his children by phone, begged his former wife not to let Hearns fight. But Steward took Hearns under his wing and became a longtime mentor. Hearns dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade and quickly became an amateur boxing sensation. After winning 155 amateur bouts and losing only eight, Hearns turned professional on 25 November 1977, knocking out Jerome Hill in two rounds. In his first year as a pro, Hearns won all thirteen of his bouts by knockouts in three rounds or less.

Solemn and brooding, with heavily lidded eyes, Hearns, nicknamed the "Hit Man," was extremely aggressive in the ring. At six feet, one inch, though his left hand was not as strong and he held it down by his side, Hearns had a powerful, lightning-quick right jab.

John Hearns was getting ready to leave his home in Memphis to see his son fight for the World Boxing Association (WBA) welterweight title in 1980 when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. In the fight, on August 2, Hearns crushed Pipino Cuevas with a second-round knockout. He retained the title by defeating three boxers over the next ten months.

On 16 September 1981 Hearns, undefeated in thirty-two matches, faced Sugar Ray Leonard in a memorable fight in Las Vegas. Hearns was a favorite and by the twelfth round was leading on all three judges' cards. But Leonard fought back furiously and won on a technical knockout in the fourteenth round. It was Hearns's first loss, and one he would never forget.

Moving to a different weight division, Hearns beat Wilfred Benitez on 3 December 1982 for the World Boxing Council (WBC) junior middleweight title. He successfully defended that title three times, including a celebrated second-round knockout of Roberto Duran in June 1984.

On 15 April 1985, Marvin Hagler and Hearns battled in a middleweight fight. It was a chaotic, reckless melee that ended when Hagler won on a technical knockout in the third round. Hagler would never agree to a rematch. Though Hearns lost the match, he cemented his reputation as the fearsome "Hit Man." "He has no fear," Steward said once. "Sometimes I wish he was a little scared." Hearns said he had the capacity to be afraid: "Anything that walks or moves, I don't fear. But I have a great fear of flying. I'm terrified of it."

At the height of his fame, Hearns, by nature a reticent man, hired a tutor to sharpen his speaking and writing abilities. "I don't feel comfortable with strangers," he told boxing photographer Arlene Schulman. Between bouts, he would often play benefit celebrity basketball games with National Basketball Association stars like Julius Erving. In his hometown of Detroit, he was a godlike figure.

In March 1987, Hearns beat Dennis Andries to win the WBC light heavyweight title. That October, he became the first man to win titles in four weight classes when he decked Juan Domingo Roldan for the WBC middleweight belt. But on 6 June 1988, Hearns unexpectedly lost the middle-weight title. Hearns was winning a typical bloody slugfest when Iran Barkley suddenly downed him in the third round. Barkley won the bout but ended up in the hospital. That November, Hearns won his fifth division title, beating James Kinchen to win the World Boxing Organization (WBO)'s super middleweight belt.

Hearns finally got his rematch with Leonard on 12 June 1989 in Las Vegas. "I've never gotten over that loss [in 1981]," Hearns said before the fight. "I think about it every day.… You have no idea how that man has weighed on my mind." Hearns, a 3-to-1 underdog, dropped Leonard to the canvas twice—in the third and eleventh rounds. But Leonard fought back viciously, and by the end of the fifteen-round match, Hearns could barely stand. It ended in a controversial draw. "I thought I won, everybody thought I won," Hearns said.

In April 1990, Hearns beat Michael Olajide in Atlantic City to retain his WBO super middleweight championship. After the fight, Hearns and Steward parted ways, and Alex Sherer took over as Hearns's manager-trainer. Sherer tried to add a left hook to his repertoire.

The next target was a sixth weight division. On 3 June 1991, Hearns was a 2-to-1 underdog against unbeaten WBA light heavyweight champion Virgil Hill. Hearns's surprising use of his left hand made the difference. He broke Hill's nose in the second round and won the match in a unanimous decision. Nine months later, Hearns again faced Barkley, the much younger fighter. Two of the three referees gave the fight to Barkley by the slimmest of margins. It was the first time Hearns had ever lost by decision.

On the downside of his career, Hearns fought mostly unknowns in little-noticed bouts. In 2000, Hearns, age forty-one, lost a fight to an aging, mediocre boxer, Uriah Grant, at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. Hearns sprained his ankle and was unable to come out of his corner for the third round. Before the fight, he had announced he would finally retire and become a promoter.

Hearns finished his career with fifty-nine wins, five losses, and one draw. He was one of the greatest fighters ever, at least for the first three rounds of a match. Never a complete boxer, Hearns was a knockout artist, using his deadly right hand with frightening efficiency. Sometimes he seemed to lose his concentration if his opponent was still standing after a few rounds. Hearns, always the aggressor, was a crowd favorite—his matches were never dull. Even in defeat, he was intimidating.

Vignettes about Hearns appear in Arlene Schulman, The Prizefighters: An Intimate Look at Champions and Contenders (1994). There are several profiles in Sports Illustrated (9 Nov. 1987; 5 June 1989; 19 June 1989; 7 May 1990; 17 June 1991; 30 Mar. 1992; and 17 Apr. 2000). Websites with Hearns's record are <http://www.kronkgym.com/fighters/hearns.html> and <http://www.cyberboxingzone.com/boxing/thearns.htm>.

Michael Betzold